There’s little question that a room with a rich history sets a certain ambience for an event. The Gaslight Cafe was a coffee house located in the basement of 116 MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village with just that history.
It started as a "basket house" where unpaid performers would pass around a basket at the end of each set and hope to be paid. Opened in 1958, the dark, steamy, subterranean Gaslight had showcased beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, but later became a folk-music club.
Among those who performed at the Gaslight were Bob Dylan, Bill Cosby, Bruce Springsteen, Richie Havens, Jose Feliciano, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, The Greenbriar Boys and Dave Van Ronk.
The first public "electric" appearance of The Blues Project (with Danny Kalb) took place at the club. Mississippi John Hurt played there. Jimi Hendrix sat in one night at the Gaslight with John Hammond, Jr.
An array of musicians also performed at the club in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Odetta, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bonnie Raitt, Rev. Gary Davis, Big Mama Thornton, Link Wray, Mimi Farina, Charles Mingus, Happy and Artie Traum, Doug Kershaw, Bob Neuwirth and David Bromberg.
So it was with this history that I watched two remarkable performers last night in a new folk music series at the old Gaslight being promoted each month by Bob Porco, the grandson of Mike Porco, the owner of the original Gerdes Folk City. Bob uses the name “Friends of Mike Porco” because most of the performers at this series also performed at the original Gerdes for his grandfather.
Last night two old pros, Randy Burns and David Massengill, performed in a splendid evening of folk music. The pair made a fine concert and have a great chemistry, though they don’t normally play together.
Burns opened the set. A raconteur, he told wonderful stories of the old days, when Dylan held court in the Village clubs. At 18, he was hired as the permanent opening act at the Gaslight for folk stars like John Hammond, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, Sonny and Brownie, Phil Ochs and Carolyn Hester.
He played all the major folk clubs, including Gerdes and the Bitter End. He described the original Gaslight (“all black, from floor to ceiling”) as compared to the club today, where a bar has replaced the original stage. However, the back room where Dylan held court is still there.
David Massengill came to New York City from Bristol, on the Virginia/Tennessee border, in the mid-1970s with an Appalachian dulcimer hand-built by the legendary Edsel Martin. A gifted songwriter who accompanies himself with the dulcimer, Massengill’s songs range from hilariously funny to about serious social issues like race and excessive wealth.
He sang of a New York restaurant kitchen crew saving an illegal alien cook from the immigration man to the funeral he conducted for a mouse he found drowned in the toilet at the late folk singer Jack Hardy’s apartment.
Massengill said at a performance many years ago he told a story of how he also washed dishes at Marvin Gardens, a restaurant on 81st and Broadway. Joan Baez heard the story and asked if she could join him washing dishes. The next night she showed up and did just that, also singing and posing for pictures with the kitchen staff.
He also told of meeting Edsel Martin, the man who made his dulcimer. Born near Black Mountain, North Carolina, Martin came from a long line of musicians and "whittlers." Besides creating wooden figures that portrayed the poverty and struggle of living in the Blue Ridge Mountains, he was a simple philosopher and became of friend of Massengill.
Massengill’s favorite dulcimer has a woman’s head carved on the end by Martin.
At the concert, Massengill wore a shirt once owned by another friend, the late film director Ken Russell, a man Massengill jokingly said never learned from his own mistakes. (“He took that as a compliment!”) He keeps the top of the shirt unbuttoned, he said, because Martin rarely buttoned his own shirt.
Next month, on May 26, Porco will present Stefan Grossman and Roy Book Binder in a tribute to the Rev. Gary Davis. It will also be at the old Gaslight, now called 116 MacDougal Street. The time is 7 p.m.